Experiences Over Things :: I’ve Never Purchased a Birthday Gift for My Son

Experiences Over Things :: I’ve Never Purchased a Birthday Gift for My Son

“Remember that time our taxi in Naples clipped a Vespa” or “Remember last year when we watched the Pels come back and beat the Lakers” or “I walked 32 miles in 8 days in New York!” These are but small examples of the stories our family regularly looks back on with joy as we reminisce about our past adventures. 

We live in a world that often equates happiness with how many ‘things’ we can accumulate, and we live in a city where children (and some adults) compete to see who can drag the most giant bags full of throws back from the Carnival parade. Years ago, as plastic toys and stuffed animals began to take over our space, we made a conscious decision to prioritize having new experiences over buying new things. (My son would argue that the Carnival parade IS an experience, the bag of plastic toys is simply lagniappe.)

Either way, experience over things has become a mantra in our house, to the point where I no longer purchase birthday presents. We much prefer a big party with all our friends or a trip / vacation / adventure to see what the world has to offer. We started small, with each person getting to choose a small, local “experience,” like a birthday trip to the zoo or a bike ride in City Park. As he has grown, so have our experiences. 

Yes, we’ve been to EPCOT many times and, yes, the food is delicious. But nothing can compare to seeing the real Trevi Fountain or eating a fresh baguette from a real Parisian boulangerie. Or filling your water bottle at a 2,000-year-old Roman faucet or navigating the underground Metro or hiking the Grand Canyon during a monsoon. Or, close to home, seeing the latest exhibit at NOMA when locals get in free or experiencing Zulu on Mardi Gras Day. All of these adventures have the sights, sounds, smells, and vibes that you just can’t get on the monorail.

Because we both travel for work so often, we’ve been able to leverage our business trips and combine them with personal experiences. That trip to New York? It was on the tail end of a national conference I attended. During one of my annual board meetings in Washington, DC, my husband took our son to visit Monticello. The trip to the Grand Canyon? We were visiting my mom, who was living there at the time, and decided just to see how far we could hike. Many of these adventures are made possible by collecting travel/credit card points and using them in a strategic way. In fact, because of the Southwest companion pass, our son is able to fly free as long as I’m traveling too. 

As I think about the joy it has brought our family to have these experiences, I see three main lessons we take from them.   

1. Empathy and Understanding 

How humbling it is to try to communicate in a place where you do not speak or understand the language. By traveling abroad, we can learn to have empathy for English language learners in our own country, who experience this challenge every day. It is not even necessary to leave the US though – our country is so diverse, just traveling to a different state can open your eyes to new ideas and points of view. 

2. Appreciation and Gratitude

We are well aware that not everyone has the privilege or the resources to take annual trips around the world. There are plenty of experiences in our own town too! Fun fact: if you have a NOLA library card (free!), there is a long list of museums that offer free admission. Whether local in New Orleans, or on a train to London, broadening our world gives us a sense of gratitude and appreciation, while also easing our fear of the unknown. Perhaps the greatest lesson we’ve learned along the way is that no matter where we are in the world, we are all human beings and we have more in common with each other than we might expect. 

3. Important Life Lessons

Some of the most important lessons that my son has learned have come from his travel experiences. He has learned the value of stepping outside his comfort zone, how to navigate uncertainty, and how to adapt to new and unfamiliar situations. And how to tell a great story. Actually, we all have. When we almost missed our train in Paris, my son also learned that his 40-something mom can break into a sprint if necessary.

It’s always hard to know whether the philosophy of experience over things has made an impact or not. However, last year, when it was time to give an informative speech at school, our son chose to present “How to Travel on an Airplane.”

He started by acknowledging that not everyone his age has had this privilege – in fact, his own mom did not fly on a plane until she was in her 20s. He then explained how to pack a suitcase, how to check in for your flight, how to check your bag, how to go through TSA, how to be prepared for the questions they might ask, and, most importantly, what snacks he recommends while you wait. (Beignets from Cafe Du Monde.)

Because of these experiences, he has a sense of open-mindedness and curiosity that I hope will serve him well for years to come. I am confident that this far outweighs the temporary satisfaction of owning one more set of Legos.

Stephanie Davi-McNeely
Stephanie Davi McNeely has been in and around the nonprofit fundraising space for nearly twenty years. She oversees development and strategic partnerships, for the ACE Mentor Program of America, a national nonprofit mentoring program based in Philadelphia. There she is responsible for corporate and individual fundraising initiatives, as well as the growth and development of national partnerships with design and construction firms. In her spare time, she plays mom’s league softball, watches her son play soccer, takes French class through the Alliance, and serves as the First Lady of the University of Holy Cross in Algiers. She resides in New Orleans, Louisiana with her husband and 11-year-old son.


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